Dramatic lineup changes mark NYCFC's first playoffs outing

TORONTO – Throughout the most prosperous times of the season, the New York City FC spine was effective and looked the same.

It started with Josh Saunders in net, Frank LampardAndrea Pirlo, and Tommy McNamara in the midfield, and David Villa up front.

But in the club’s first playoff game Sunday at BMO Field, Saunders took the bench in favor of Eirik Johansen. Lampard also sat on the substitute’s bench, while Pirlo sat out with an injury, and Villa proved largely ineffective.

The result was a disappointing and potentially devastating 2-0 defeat to Toronto FC in the opening leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira said Pirlo didn’t complete the team’s final training session Saturday and woke up with a tight calf.

“We didn’t want to take a risk,” said Vieira, indicating it is too early to know if the veteran midfielder will be able to play next week. “We have to wait, go back home and do some more x-rays to find out."

Lampard played the final 30 minutes, coming off the bench for Mikey Lopez, who started alongside Federico Bravo.

“Why not play with Mikey instead of anybody else? We had a game plan and I wanted to be more solid centrally,” Vieira said. “This is the reason why I choose Mikey to play next to [Bravo].”

Lampard, meanwhile, said he’s not building himself back physically from a calf injury that sidelined him for almost the entire final month of the regular season. Instead, he said he's already ready.

“I’m fit,” Lampard said, “It’s the manager’s call. I’m fit to play 90 minutes.”

Johansen said he found out he was starting in the team meeting Sunday morning. The Norwegian did well, twice denying Sebastian Giovinco in the first half before conceding a pair of scrappy goals late in the game.

Johansen said getting a chance to see first-team action, both in a friendly at Necaxa and last week against Columbus Crew SC, proved beneficial.

“Obviously the more games you play the more you get into a rhythm,” he said. “Just by having the game against Columbus and the game in Mexico, although it was a friendly, it's recent games. It helps a lot for the confidence. But then again, I’ve been a part of the team for two years and I feel confident I can go in and I feel part of the team regardless.”

Some might question starting a relatively inexperienced goalkeeper over someone who started 59 consecutive matches and has vast MLS Cup playoff experience. But Vieira himself was not second-guessing the decision after the game.

“I had all week to make a decision,” Vieira said. “I’m really happy with the decision that I made.”